You may have arrived here looking for support on how to write essays for AQA’s GCSE English Language (8700) Paper 2 Question 5 – the non-fiction writing question. Today I’m going to look at how you write an essay (which will also be the main bit of an article, letter or speech with a little adaptation) and how you can develop your ideas.
This post is the fifth in a series looking at letters, articles, speeches and leaflets.
So how do you write an essay (or the main body of the other bits)?
Very simply, you have time to write about three to four developed paragraphs or sections.
Why three to four?
The exam gives you about 50 minutes for planning and writing your response. Take 10 minutes off for thinking, planning and checking and you have about 40 minutes. Take off your introduction and conclusion, and you have about 30 minutes. On a good day at degree level (where I’d peaked at speedy essay writing!) I could manage a side of wide-lined A4 every 8 minutes. I’ll assume you are a little slower, so you’re looking at a maximum of three sides of fairly large handwriting, maximum. I guess I can write a good paragraph in about 7 or 8 minutes, which gives me time to write 3 or 4.
Why else three or four?
Partly, because you need a range of connected ideas to get to 13 or above out of 24. That’s around the Grade 5 boundary, possibly. A range, if you’ve not read this from me before, is not two. Two things are not a range. A range is a minimum of three. So you need three ideas in your response. If you go with the ‘new topic/idea = new paragraph’ approach, then that’s a minimum of three.
To get 16 or above you need a range of clear connected ideas. Ok – still three, just linked better. We’ll look at links next time.
To get 19 or above, you need a range of developed complex ideas. Now, if you are going to be developed and complex, you think that one idea that’s fully developed is enough. It isn’t. You’ve still got a range in there. Now, you may have 27 ideas but if you have 40 minutes to write, you’re looking at possibly 90 seconds on each. If you have 6, you have around 6 minutes on each. 6 minutes does not make for a lot of development.
So for me, it’s a minimum of three points, ideas or reasons, along with development. A maximum of five means you won’t have to sacrifice development.
What if you want to slip into the elusive Grade 9 territory? Those ideas have to be convincing. Other than that, it’s the same really as you’d be doing in the 19-21 band.
That is my secret formula for how many ideas/sections you want to be thinking about for good grades. You don’t want to sacrifice a range, but neither can you sacrifice development. This way, you know you’ve got a range and you know you’ve got time to develop your ideas.
Now most of the students’ work I mark at the lower grades – say Grade 4 and below – do not suffer with a lack of ideas. They’re the kind of papers where there are 27 ideas. None of them are linked and none of them are developed. Students at this level write paragraphs (or notional paragraphs, where there are clear places paragraphs should be even if they’ve been forgotten or left out) that are one or two sentences long.
Let’s take the sample assessment material question as an example:
‘Homework has no value. Some students get it done for them; some don’t do it at
all. Students should be relaxing in their free time.’
Write an article for a broadsheet newspaper in which you explain your point of
view on this statement.
A Grade 3 student is going to be writing a bit like this:
Some students prefer to do nothing rather than doing homework. If you just do homework all the time your life will be very boring.
People cheat with homework. You can buy it on the internet.
There is no point doing it because nobody does it and the teacher makes you do it in class.
It doesn’t help you to do homework because if you get it wrong you aren’t learning anything. Why would you bother if you are just wasting your time?
Can you see? Four ideas, no development and no links at all. They could be in any order at all.
It might even have looked like this:
Some students prefer to do nothing rather than doing homework. If you just do homework all the time your life will be very boring. People cheat with homework. You can buy it on the internet.There is no point doing it because nobody does it and the teacher makes you do it in class. It doesn’t help you to do homework because if you get it wrong you aren’t learning anything. Why would you bother if you are just wasting your time?
That’s what I mean about having notional paragraphs. There are places you want to put a paragraph break, but the student either has forgotten, hasn’t bothered or didn’t know.
The biggest problem students have moving up is learning how to develop their non-fiction paragraphs. Organising them can be pretty challenging too.
So, today, I’m going to give you NINE ways that you can develop and extend your paragraphs. They are not a checklist. You don’t have to do all nine. Some will be appropriate and some might not fit. Some might work and others won’t. And definitely don’t do all nine in one paragraph. That would be hideously unnecessary.
So, let’s take one of those ideas and give some examples of each of our nine things. I’m going to pick the clearest argument, that if you do it wrong, you’ve wasted your time, and then I’m going to have a play around with the nine ideas as examples.
This has got to come in at number 1, since this question is often going to be asking you to explain your viewpoint. An explanation is just you telling me why.
It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. Worse still, the more we practise our errors, the more they stick with us.
As you can see, all I’m doing is explaining why it’s a waste of time. An explanation, by the way, is a good place for a colon. If you’ve read my post about colons, you’ll know why.
An analogy just means explaining something using “it’s like…”, kind of a bit like a simile. It points out the connections so that a reader can understand a difficult point and puts it in an image that is more clear for them. My analogy builds pretty nicely on the bit I just did, so I’ll continue:
It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. Worse still, the more we practise our errors, the more they stick with us. It’s like if you learn to cycle with your knees pointing out – you’ve practised it so often like that it just becomes natural to you. Even when people point out that you need to keep your knees in, it’s really hard to do it especially in the heat of the moment. It’s the same way with much of what we learn. The more we practise those errors, the more fixed they become.
So you can see me using a mix of analogy (the bit about the bike) and explanation – why homework is like that. I like to always finish an analogy by coming back to the central idea that connects the two, and explain why X is like Y. You might find that overkill, but I think it makes my writing a bit more neat in terms of organisation.
Examples cover a broad range of ideas, some of which I’ll expand on by themselves. They help put things into practical terms, and work especially well for abstract ideas. Let’s take that first topic sentence again and expand it with an example:
It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. If you keep making errors with commas, for example, and you just keep practising those errors, all that will happen is you’ll make those errors so many times that you think they’re right. There’s no way all your teachers will pick up on all the times you make mistakes with your commas, and so the more you make, the more you’ll think that’s how it’s supposed to be.
Rather than being airy-fairy, examples are easy to imagine. They give weight to your explanation and make it into a real-life situation so that your reader can see the value in what you say. They help make the hypothetical or speculative into a somethingn that is easy to grasp. You can also use some discourse markers, like such as, for instance or for example to help make it clear that this is what you are doing.
An anecdote is a specific form of example: one that is a personal story. It doesn’t have to be personal to you, but that’s one way you can do it.
It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. In Maths, for example, I did five hours of quadratic equations one week. By the time the teacher marked them, I’d really thought I had the process perfect. I did the factoring all wrong, but I practised it so many times that by the time I got my homework back with 0%, it wasn’t just demoralising for me, but it was also really hard to learn the right way of doing it because I’d practised it badly so many times.
Anecdotes are the opposite of statistics in many ways: where statistics have lots of numbers involved (usually!) anecdotes are individual and personal. They’re useful though because once again, they put things in practical terms. They’re also useful because when you describe it and give that little bit of narrative, I can really see what you mean.
#5 Facts (and assertions)
A fact is something that can be proven with evidence – although you might not always have the evidence there. I ask myself whether or not your statement can be verified. If it can, then it’s a fact.
It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. It makes it very hard when you’ve done things wrong for a long time to then do it right.
The last bit of this is a statement that sounds like a fact. Can it be verified? I’m guessing someone somewhere has done an experiment with mice to show that if they’ve always run through a maze one way, it makes it hard for them to then change the habit. It sounds like a fact, for sure. In the exam, you don’t have access to back-copies of scientific studies and lab results, so you will have to make things up. Facts make you sound authoritative and scientific. An assertion, by the way, is a statement that sounds like a fact but isn’t really, or there’s no real evidence for. It might be right or it might be wrong. Assertions are what you’ll mostly be making in the exam. That said, many writers make assertions in arguments or persuasive writing and write so authoritatively that you think it is a fact when it’s not. In the real world, I hate this. It’s a bit of false expertise. For instance, those who say ‘text speak and emoticons have a negative impact on spelling’… well, no study has been done on that, and it’s not shown in exams. Assertions make you sound like an expert. Many people give away their assertions by saying things like it’s a fact that or it’s true that and turn their opinions into facts. Say, for instance, I say “I believe that homework is unnecessary”, I can make it into a false fact or assertion by removing the “I believe that” bit. Homework is unnecessary. That sounds like a fact. But you and I both know that it is not. If I want to sound even more confident, I might add “It’s a fact that homework is unnecessary” which is my last-ditch desperate attempt to convince you that my opinion is a fact.
#6 Numbers and statistics
This is one I actually hate and I find it can be the one part of writing that comes across as really ridiculous. You’ll have lots of lovely argument or explanation, and then it’ll all be ruined by a number or statistic that is utterly unconvincing, even if it’s true. Too big, and it seems unrealistic. Too precise and it also seems unrealistic.
It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. 83% of students make the same error in every single homework they do.
That sounds ridiculous because it is too precise. It’s also too big. But if I make it too small, it seems silly.
It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. 3% of students make the same errors time and time again.
As if that’s a reason to get rid of homework!
Getting the balance right is hard. It has to sound sensible. Most statistics and numbers don’t, particularly for students at Grade 4 – 6. It can be the one ugly, niggling little detail that makes something sound inauthentic.
So, if you must use them, err on the side of caution and generalise.
It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. According to a recent survey, almost a third of students admitted that they make the same mistake in every piece of homework, but they don’t know how to change.
One of my students in the week was writing a Paper 2 piece about teenagers, in which he’d made up a nice statistic about 20% of teenagers having been wrongly arrested. That sounded a lot, but it also sounded a bit made up. It might have been more believeable to say that for teenage arrests, almost 90% went without charges being pressed. We did a bit of research and found 74,588 young people (16-17) in 2008-9 were convicted, reprimanded or warned. There are about 1.5 million 16 year olds in the UK, so you could work out actual statistics, especially if you had numbers for people taken into custody – which is what I would do were I really writing an article about false or unproductive arrests for teenagers. However, as soon as I get specific with big numbers, like saying “There are 1504788 16 year olds in the UK”, it sounds immediately made up. Newspapers and magazines, alongside speech writers, round up statistics all the time to make them more palatable. Can you imagine even trying to say 1504788 in a speech? “There are one million five hundred and four thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight sixteen year olds in the UK.” After five hundred, I bet you were scratching your head. Too precise statistics sound ridiculous. Round up and sound real.
Just as an aside, I went through the ten most-read opinion articles in each major paper today, and only two had a statistic in them. Numbers, sometimes, like 202 people were killed in the Bali bombing in 2002, or 9 of the 11 countries with the best equal rights records are in the EU. They aren’t used as often as you think they are, I promise. If you’re going to use them, get them right, and avoid if not.
#7 Series of questions
These are not rhetorical questions, always, but just questions. You may well go on to answer them. Remember, I’m not such a fan of rephrasing the question to start off your answer (simply because I remember one year on an old, old paper where it seemed like everyone had done it – and it was really, really annoying after a while).
Have you ever got frustrated with homework?
Especially URGH if you’re going to do this afterwards:
Have you ever got frustrated with homework? I have.
But done properly, a row of questions can make a nice point.
It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. What’s the point in making error after error? Especially if it rarely gets corrected?
Two felt like a good number here. But three or four wouldn’t be unreasonable. I just didn’t have any more questions that seemed to fit. These questions are really good at making it obvious that there is no point at all in making error after error, or never being corrected.
#8 Imagine ifs…
An “Imagine if” is a good way to speculate about a future or a situation which isn’t currently the case. It’s a ‘best case scenario’ or ‘blue sky thinking’ where you put forward all the possible good things that could be the case IF your suggestions were put into place. It’s the ideal, the possible, the dream scenario.
It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. Surely there’s a better way to learn? A way in which students get fairly immediate feedback that they can act on quickly. This may seem like a wild dream, but it happens already. In-class oral feedback, whether it’s from your peers or from a teacher, is a much better way to avoid endless repetition of error that just makes them more and more hardened. Guided writing, peer writing and small group work is a way to take pressure off teachers and enable students to become better appraisers of not only their own work, but also that of others. Isn’t that the ideal we’re all working for?
By putting forward hypothetical best-case scenarios, you’re presenting all the positive reasons to do something. It’s non-confrontational, it’s celebratory and it’s inoffensive. Who could criticise you for wanting to change things for the better? If you’re writing to a school to ban homework – part of the very institution of schools – you’ll win more votes with blue skies than with tellings off, I promise. It works very well when you pile it up with number 9…
#9 Worst-case scenarios
If you’re using blue skies and possibilities to imagine a better future, it’s nice to contrast that with the flaws of the current system. It’s particularly nice if you imagine those flaws from the perspective of your reader – ones you know they’re going to admit to.
What isn’t nice is if you turn it into a big list of selfish moans.
Homework is the bane of our lives. It makes us miserable. We hate it. You only do it to torture us, or because you think OfSTED think you should, or the parents complain if you don’t give us something to do. It’s cheating us of our lives and turning us into mindless drones. I don’t even get a social life because of it. I hate homework!
Imagine what your audience would criticise it for and then describe it from their point of view.
It’s a waste of time to do homework if you are making mistakes in it: you aren’t learning anything and all you are doing is practising your errors. Surely there are better ways to spend your evenings than poring over exercise books – homework half-completed, tatty, lacking in application or effort. Is there anything worse than the sinking sense of déjà vu that you’ve marked their/there wrong in every single piece of Billy’s homework since the day he started in Year 7, and he still hasn’t got it? You tell him and you tell him, but nothing changes. It’s a waste of your time and a waste of your effort. But why is it that Billy still isn’t getting it? Is it because he just hadn’t understood at all? And if writing a big long explanation underneath each time isn’t helping, what will? Studies show that the best feedback is immediate: five minutes working with Billy until he has that lightbulb moment might be all it takes. That’s surely got to be one of the best reasons to put an end to the monotony of marking?
In that final bit, you can see how I’m blending series of questions, made-up anecdotes, facts (made-up ones), examples, worst-case scenarios, best-case scenarios, explanation… Those nine things help me really build up my paragraph into something beyond those simple topic sentence paragraphs. Is that a developed, complex idea? I like to think so. Is it convincing? I’ll leave that to you to decide. It’s convincing to me, but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?
Two more paragraphs like that, along with the appropriate tailoring for whatever text-type you’re writing, a genre-specific opening and ending, and you have yourself a well-rounded GCSE English Language non-fiction response.
In the next post I’ll be looking at ways you can organise and link your ideas more securely to improve your marks.